Closer to Brad Than Ever

updated 08/27/2007 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/27/2007 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Keeping four kids cooped up in a hotel room on a sunny summer day is hardly a parent's idea of fun. But then again, most parents don't face the kind of obstacles that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie do. On Aug. 13 the globe-trotting couple and their four children—Maddox, 6, Pax, 3, Zahara, 2, and Shiloh, 14 months—decided to hang out indoors in Chicago, where Jolie is filming the action movie Wanted, rather than deal with the paparazzi who had been trailing them throughout the Windy City, following them even while they went sightseeing and grabbed takeout at McDonald's. The media glare is hardly new for the Jolie-Pitts, but it has reached a renewed intensity ever since the pair returned from Europe earlier this month, when they were confronted with increasingly shrill gossip that they are heading for a split. According to a source close to the family, nothing could be further from the truth: "The rumors are totally and completely false. There are no problems whatsoever. Things are really good."

So it seems to many who have seen the couple in recent weeks—from a quiet moment when the two pushed Shiloh in her stroller while on vacation in Aix-en-Provence on July 31 to a much more public display of affection when Pitt, 43, returned to Chicago from a brief stint doing jury duty in L.A. on Aug. 10. Though she had worked until after 4 a.m. that morning, Jolie, 32, met her man at O'Hare airport and embraced him warmly as he entered their SUV. In fact, those who know the couple best say their only problem at the moment is the rumors themselves: that Jolie is fighting with Pitt, suffers from an eating disorder and is feuding with Pitt's parents, Bill and Jane.

Pitt's brother Doug, 40, who joined his parents and sister Julie at Maddox's sixth-birthday party in early August in Santa Barbara, Calif., dismisses the speculation with a chuckle. "I don't read the tabloids," he says, adding that the sensational stories just mean "it's a slow news week."

Jolie has apparently done her best to brush off the more frivolous claims that she angrily threw wine at Pitt while on vacation in France ("ridiculous," says a Jolie-Pitt source) and that she and Pitt bicker about whom they'll vote for in the next presidential election. "That's false," says the pair's political adviser Trevor Neilson. "Neither Brad nor Angelina has picked a candidate." Still, Jolie takes at least some of the talk more seriously. The actress has talked about how the emotional hit she took after her mother, Marcheline Bertrand, died in January contributed to her weight loss. Nevertheless, a family source says she does not have an eating disorder and is upset by speculation about her body (see box). "She's perfectly healthy," says the source. "She eats all the time—breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks." Pitt, says the source, is fine with his girlfriend's physique: "Brad loves Angie just the way she is."

Their mutual affection was evident on Aug. 11, when the couple took their children for an after-hours visit to Chicago's Field Museum, home to Sue, the largest T. rex skeleton yet discovered. "The kids ran around and explored," says museum rep Nancy O'Shea, adding that Maddox was "just thrilled" to see the dinosaurs. "He would run up to the security guard and ask a question, and Brad would [tell him to say], 'Excuse me, officer,' and then ask the question, as though he were trying not only to let him have a good time but reinforce good manners too. Brad and Angelina were very nice and appreciative."

Reports were much the same in the small town of Marthon in the southwest of France, where the family vacationed earlier this summer. Beginning on July 14, the Jolie-Pitts set up camp at a $25,000-a-week estate, spending several days swimming, eating Popsicles and riding go-carts. At an amusement park in Massignac on July 16, Pitt, Maddox, Pax and Zahara had so much fun jumping in an inflatable bouncy castle that, says park operator Benjamin Gautier, "the kids were screaming like wild animals." Jolie and Pitt made sure to fit in some private time as well, twice sharing intimate dinners at the Hostellerie Château Sainte-Catherine, where, says owner Dominique Broussard, "they seemed like a couple very much in love."

And perfectly in tune as they spent the afternoon of July 23 with their three older kids and pal Mariane Pearl, whom Jolie portrayed in A Mighty Heart. Joining Pearl and her 5-year-old son Adam for bowling and air hockey at a French arcade, the couple were in good spirits as they sampled glasses of beer. In an effort to help one of the children, whose bowling ball was stranded in a lane, "Brad thought he'd go down and push it along," says the owner, Patrick Bertrand. "He slipped and fell on his back but just laughed it off. He was like any man appreciating his freedom on vacation."

Since returning to the States, the couple have continued to spend time with friends, joining Jolie's Wanted castmate, rapper Common, at Chicago restaurant Japonais on Aug. 11. "Brad and Angelina were in great spirits," says a source. "They were definitely having fun."

Still, say friends, the pair prefer family time to nights out. "They are very close to their children," says a Jolie-Pitt insider. "And spend a lot of time with them." That won't change when the family heads to New York City, where later this month Pitt starts shooting the Coen brothers comedy Burn After Reading with George Clooney and where the older children attend local schools. Wherever they travel, expect the Jolie-Pitts to stick together. "As time goes on, [their relationship] just keeps getting better and better," says a family source, adding, "And every day with their four kids is a happy day. For real."

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